From Sean Cockerham in Juneau –
The Senate just voted to overturn the 90-day limit imposed by voters five years ago on how long the Legislature could be in session.
The bill would extend the annual legislative session from 90 days to 120 days every other year. The rest of the time it would remain at 90 days.
It wouldn’t take effect until 2014.
The bill now goes to the state House, where it faces an uncertain future before lawmakers leave town for the year on April 18.
Senate president Gary Stevens, who sponsored Senate Bill 18, has argued that the governor has too much power when the Legislature is only in session for three months.
The Kodiak Republican said the 90 day limit doesn’t leave enough time for legislators to provide agency oversight, to properly vet bills and give needed attention to their constituents.
“If you support this changing back to 120 days it could hurt you politically. People get very upset about this. I’ve gotten some really nasty emails saying that obviously I’m a crook and the best thing we can do is not be in Juneau at all,” Stevens told his colleagues at a recent hearing. “But that is not our job, not why we were elected.”
Alaska voters in 2006 narrowly passed the ballot initiative reducing the length of the Legislature's annual regular session to 90 days.
Wasilla Republican Sen. Charlie Huggins spoke out on the Senate floor against overturning the initiative. “I respect the voters in this case and support a 90 day session,” Huggins said.
The initiative was sponsored by three legislators who argued lawmakers wasted a lot of time while in Juneau and that shortening the time in session would be more efficient.
Stevens said he thought the motives of some of the legislators who had supported the initiative were “questionable.”
“Some seemed a little selfish some seemed a little self serving. Some, it was convenient for them to have a shorter session so to get back to their hometowns and run their hotels or spend more time in their retirement condominiums,” he said.
Then-Rep. Jay Ramras, among the sponsors of the 90-day limit initiative, owns Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks.
The revenue department estimates the bill would cost the state nearly $900,000 a year. About half that cost is a result of the per diem that legislators receive for every day they are in session.
Legislators from Juneau get $174 a day in per diem while non-Juneau legislators receive $232 a day, on top of their $50,400 base salaries.
Supporters of the bill say they don’t expect it to require an appropriation because they would use money from the “special session contingency account” in order to cover the costs.
Voting in favor of extending the session were Coghill, Davis, Egan, Ellis, Hoffman, Kookesh, Menard, Olson, Paskvan, Stedman and Thomas.
Voting against the bill were French, Giessel, Huggins, Meyer and Wielechowski.